Selling for the quite reasonable price of $120, this six-LP box gives collectors a chance—another chance, actually, as Classic Records and Speakers Corner have already waded into these waters—to sample the great Mercury Living Presence catalog in the format that first won these recordings fame. Decca also has for sale a 50-CD Mercury set, to be covered in an upcoming issue by Art Lintgen. Both are limited editions, so if you’re interested, act quickly.
Which six Mercury titles Decca chose for the 180-gram vinyl treatment may ultimately frustrate some. On the (very) positive side, we’re given three treasurable concerto recordings. Janos Starker feasted on the Romantic cello literature, of which the Dvo ̆rák B Minor Concerto and Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei are prime examples. Starker’s performances are searing without seeming melodramatic and the cellist’s readily identifiable sound is faithfully reproduced. (I once played in an orchestra accompanying Starker for a series of performances and the impression of his lean, sinewy, remarkably expressive tone is something burned in my memory.) Henryk Szeryng’s playing was often described as “patrician” and his rendering of the Brahms Violin Concerto is disciplined and carefully modulated. The technique is flawless and intonation spot-on: the soloist is an ideal interpreter of Brahms’s brainy but fully “Romantic” masterpiece. Best of all is Byron Janis’s account of the Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, my favorite version of this frequently recorded work. The soloist’s passagework is dazzling, with all the pianistic hurdles tossed off with nonchalant grace. This isn’t Rachmaninoff for those who like to wallow in the composer’s luxuriant harmonies and sonorities, but Janis’s lyrical gifts and the clarity of his musical conception reward consistently.
The sound is wonderful for all three, with natural balances between soloist and orchestra that let the former be heard without bloating the instrumental image. The tonality is characteristically bright, especially upper strings; as usual for Mercury, there’s not extravagant orchestral weight or depth of field. But, boy, are these recordings vivid in their portrayal of a flesh-and-blood musical event.
The other three LPs were clearly chosen for their sonic thrill-and chills, rather than musical merit. Balalaika Favorites? Enough, already. It’s currently available on 200- gram vinyl from Classic, as well as SACD and as a high-resolution download from HDtracks; it’s charms wear thin quickly, however wonderful the reproduction of all those favorite balalaikas and other folk instruments. Hi-Fi Espanola—another audiophile icon—is even more cringe- inducing. Yes, I know it’s a pops program, but there’s something vaguely demeaning about programming Percy Faith (Brazilian Sleigh Bells) and Arthur Benjamin (Jamaican Rumba) alongside works from genuine Spanish and Latin American composers like Granados, Falla, and Oscar Lorenzo Fernández. Great-sounding castanets, awful record.
Finally, Antal Dorati’s disc offers two of Tchaikovsky’s lesser works, Capriccio italien and the infamous artillery-laden 1812 Festival Overture. For decades, nerdy audiophiles have patiently sat through the first 13 minutes of Dorati’s dutiful performance to see if their prized cartridge would track the cannon shots. Mine did, sort of, but if I really need to experience antique weaponry in my listening room, I’ll go digital, thank you.