Guilty Pleasure via Reader’s Digest

The 12 LP box set of “Adventures in Light Classical Music” is everywhere. Thousand upon thousand of these sets were produced by RCA under contract with Reader’s Digests. For years, I passed them over in my hunts through re-use bins and flea markets because – well, because they were Reader’s Digest, the folks that abridged books in the belief that Americans didn’t have time for the full read – the harbingers of the sound bite. If, by extension, they were going to offer highlight teases in music, I wanted no part in that butchery. But then a fellow rummager turned my head and convinced me to give them a go, “If for no other reason, the sound is amazing”, he said.

And he was right. The recordings are excellent, made by RCA sometime in the early 60s (no dates anywhere in set) in Cyclophonic Stereo. This has to be the precursor of Living Stereo, if not the genuine article. The various works are acquitted quite well by the New Symphony Orch. Of London under Gibson and Boult, the Vienna State Opera Orch. under Gruber and Desarzens, the Paris Symphony Orch. under Leibowitz and the Orchestra Filarmonica di Roma under Massimo Freccia.

There are all the standards familiar to nearly everyone including, tons of Strauss waltzes, play it again Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Wagner, Mozart, etc., etc. To their credit, the folks at Reader’s Digest expand on some familiar sound bites. The theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s Presents, is given its full rendition due as Gounod’s "Funeral March of a Marionette". (If anyone wants the complete listing, I’ll be happy to post.)

I paid on the low end of the $3 to $10 range that I’ve seen for this box set and many that I’ve examined are in NM if not, unplayed condition. (Owned to impress and not to play, I guess.) I’m told that there are also a half dozen sets (6 LPs each) dedicated to individual composers that are also recorded in Cyclophonic Stereo – but these are harder to come by as collectors seem to snag up these puppies. Don’t confuse these with the Time-Life/RCA partnership that produced so-so box sets called “Great Men of Music”. Also be advised that the equally prolific RD/RCA box sets of “Music of the World’s Great Composers” (1959) are mono.

“Festival in Light Classical Music” is a box of sparkling gems that will provide many evenings of aural pleasure. Just because these sets are common in number and directed at the common masses, they shouldn’t be overlooked. They contain a parade of uplifting performances that were recorded, mastered and pressed at a breakthrough moment in vinyl fidelity.
Another great set of recordings by the Charles Gerhardt / Kenneth Wilkinson recording team. While Gerhardt worked for RCA several years in the early 1950s, these are not RCA produced recordings: they are only manufactured by RCA. As I recall, Readers Digest contracted directly with Gerhardt to produce these (and several other sets, including the "Music of the Worlds's Great Composers" set). Gerhardt then worked directly with the legendary Decca recording engineer, Kenneth Wilkinson, make the recordings.

For more on Charles Gerhardt, a nice biographical summary and some interesting photos from various recording sessions is contained in the article "A four-decade friendship with Charles Gerhardt"
Most of the classical and light classical Reader's Digest material recorded by Gerhardt and Wilkinson has been remastered and released on CD by Chesky. I have a number of these. The remasterings are first-rate, and the sound of the Wilkinson-engineered originals was superb, so the Chesky CDs of this material are highly recommendable. There is one I use regularly as a reference/evaluation tool: it is Light Classics Volume II, various selections all conducted by Gerhardt. The first track, Tosca Prelude to Act III, recorded in London 1964 with the Royal Philharmonic, has sound that will rot your socks--just amazing. Only 6 1/2 minutes long, it has such a variety of different sounds, magnificently recorded, that it's a valuable reference tool. Happy listening.
These are some of the best recordings of classical music ever made. They are excellent performances as well. Amazing stuff. Recordings like these are the reasons that I love vinyl as much as I do.

Night On Bald Mountain with Boult is on here as well. It blows away every other version I have heard to this date.
I'm in complete agreement here about the Reader's Digest series being fantastic. I have Music of the World's Greatest Composers, in near mint condition. I've noticed that the matrix numbers end in 5S or 12S, just like Shaded Dogs do, so yes, RCA pressed them. Highly enjoyable, highly recommended!
I actually think they sound just as good if not better than most shaded dogs. Wilkinson at his best.
This is a great thread! My mother was not a fan of classical music, but she believed that my younger brother and I should be exposed to it. So she purchased the Music of the World's Greatest Composers and, later, the World's Greatest Light Classical Music. Both sat on the shelf for a while, another good intention gone awry.

One day when I was about 12 or 13 and having nothing better to do, I pulled out the Music of the World's Greatest Composers and began reading the book that came with the set. The biographies of the composers fascinated me. Schubert's life particularly intrigued me because it described his death at an early age. The article then described the first performance of his Unfinished Symphony, which occurred after Schubert's death. The article related how the orchestra played the piece until its end, when the conductor turned to the audience and said, "Here the conductor laid down his pen."

Well, I had to hear that symphony. I pulled the LP from its sleeve and put it on our trusty mono Webcor phonograph. What I heard surprised me, delighted me, and moved me.

That was the first piece of classical music that I chose to listen to. Eventually, I played all of the music in both Readers Digests sets many times.

I don't think my mother ever listened to any of them. But her gift of those Readers Digests sets were a lifetime gift to me of the joy of classical music.
I have 2 boxed sets of Reader's Digest "Popular music that will live forever" great recordings as well as performances. One is from my parents music collection which I inherited since I'm the only one of the siblings it seems that loved these recordings dating from the early 60's and listened to on their Zenith console. The other I picked up at a flea market for next to nothing, I had to buy it. Interestingly enough my parents set sounds better, maybe an earlier production run, who knows? These are the years where I learned that some recordings sounded so much better than others and the Reader's Digest offerings along with recordings from Time, RCA and Mercury. I never see the Time recordings mentioned, many were Latin themed offerings. Thanks for reminding me, I have to pull them out and listen, it’s been awhile. One of the recordings, one of my favorites was a song called “Jalousie” by Lew Gade, an orchestrated tango. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops made this one famous but the Reader's Digest version as I recall is also wonderful. Much of the music in this collection is of songs rather than light classical but very well arranged and thoroughly enjoyable.
The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven by Royal Philharmonic is a great one. These and the others can be found at thrift stores etc, near new condition very inexpensivly.
The Readers Digest series are great for those not into getting period LP's of the 50's pressings.

The Time/Life series  is  also a good find at thrift stores. Not unusual to find very nice sets for next to nothing. Decent recordings. I've found copies that look like only one(out of 4) discs was played.

They don't compare to stuff done in the 50's as far as sonics, but more enjoyable than a CD. The booklets are great to read while listening.