Mercury Living Presence

The Collector's Edition, Volume 3

Mercury Living Presence

The third and final Mercury Living Presence CD collection was recently released. With the addition of the 53 CDs in this album, all of the remastered recordings supervised by Wilma Cozart Fine in the 1990s are included in the three Mercury box sets. That includes nearly every recording made under the Mercury Living Presence label. Volume 3 contains a lot more that will be of value to music lovers and audiophiles.

First and perhaps of greatest interest are ten new recordings never before released on CD by Universal, including some legendary audiophile recordings: Respighi’s Church Windows/Feste Romane, Copland’s Third Symphony, Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes/Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (mono Mercury Olympians), Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture/Capriccio Italien (the original 1954 mono Mercury Olympian version), and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in stereo are all played by Antal Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Frederick Fennell conducts music by Hindemith, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky with the Eastman Wind Ensemble and a collection of Victor Herbert’s music with a studio orchestra. Shostakovich’s Fourth and Eighth String Quartets played by the Borodin Quartet, Baroque Concertos for Recorders and Strings with Bernard Krainis (recorders) and the London Strings conducted by Neville Marriner, and the World of Flamenco (the Romeros) are also new to CD.

Doráti’s Church Windows is in a class by itself as an interpretation, and the famous gong crash is one of the greatest moments in audiophile history, even if it is a mono recording. I can still hear it exploding out of those Jensen Imperials and Electro-Voice Patricians in the 1950s! Doráti’s 1812 Overture is one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time. His 1954 version is a better performance than the 1958 stereo remake (included in Volume One), and Capriccio Italien is white hot. The Doráti Copland Third Symphony probably introduced the work to many listeners and audiophiles. Doráti applies faster tempos than are customary today without sacrificing dynamic power or rhythmic intensity. Doráti also wastes no time in the “Eroica” Symphony, but some may complain that he drives the music too hard. The Ginastera/Britten recording was one of the early Olympian sonic showpieces. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is played without the narrator (Doráti later recorded it on Decca Phase 4 with Sean Connery narrating). The Phase 4 recording is a better performance, but the orchestral version is preferable for listening purposes.

Fennell’s concert of Victor Herbert’s music (like his Cole Porter and George Gershwin recordings, also included here) contains elaborate (some might say garish) orchestrations that are shamelessly multimiked in contrast to the purist Mercury Living Presence classical releases. These three Perfect Presence albums were recorded between 1960 and 1962 following the success of similar sonic showpieces also engineered by C. Robert Fine for the Command label. In fact, the Mercury Perfect Presence and Command recordings may have played a role in stimulating the genesis of Decca Phase 4, but Mercury, fortunately, restricted its aggressive multimiking to appropriately selected recordings of lighter music where a concert hall setting was less critical. Hindemith, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky may seem like odd repertoire for Fennell and his student wind ensemble, but the performances are very good. 

The Borodin Quartet playing Shostakovich String Quartets is a treasure with Mercury’s sound, even if it is taken from a second-generation tape (the original 35mm tape was lost). The Romeros playing Flamenco music with its relentless intensity and repetitive clapping, clicking, shouting, and stomping, and Concertos for Recorders and Strings will undoubtedly have their adherents, but I am not one of them.

Philips purchased Mercury in 1961, and shortly thereafter the Mercury team made several recordings featuring Philips artists. They were originally released on Philips LPs but were really Mercury recordings. Sviatoslav Richter’s Liszt Piano Concertos with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the London Symphony Orchestra are legendary in performance and sound. Aside from the Decca Solti Ring, there may not be a better combination of realistic hall sound and dynamic impact. Other lesser-known Mercurys that were initially released on Philips records and that appear in this set include Richter and Mstislav Rostropovich playing Beethoven Cello Sonatas and Galina Vishnevskaya (accompanied by Rostropovich on the piano) singing songs by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev. The focal instrumental imaging of Richter and Rostropovich in the Cello Sonatas is stunning. The speakers simply are not there. Charles Mackerras also conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in a sizzling but high-frequency-dominated collection of orchestral showpieces taken from two original Philips records entitled Kaleidoscope and Concert Sparklers.

Philips engineers adopted Mercury’s three-microphone technique and used it for some Mercury and Philips recordings. According to the program notes, they could not obtain the Schoeps M201 microphones used by C. Robert Fine, but they found a “similar audio profile” in Schoeps MK23 microphones. The most important of those late Mercury recordings was the four Tchaikovsky Orchestral Suites recorded in 1966, featuring Doráti conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra with unrivaled dynamic impact in works that can sound bland in the hands of many conductors. The sound retains the usual Mercury dynamics, but there is a subtle dryness that is not usually present on earlier Mercurys. The Tchaikovsky Suites have been available on mediocre Philips CDs, but they have been remastered and significantly improved for this release along with a Rafael Puyana collection of Antonio Soler’s harpsichord music.

The main content of this set includes the rest of the Mercury recordings remastered by Wilma Cozart Fine in the 1990s and not included in the first two volumes. The project is now complete. The large number of high-quality recordings attests to the depth of the Mercury catalog. Once again, Doráti is the principal conductor. He is a justly renowned Tchaikovsky specialist. The First, Second, Third, and Fifth Symphonies are included here. His interpretations are characterized by moderately fast tempos, rhythmic precision, extreme dynamic contrasts, and a total lack of sentiment. They are stylistically similar to Riccardo Muti’s much acclaimed cycle. Doráti’s ballet expertise helps to breathe life into the Third Symphony, and just when you would think that he would be off to the races, Doráti takes a surprisingly measured pace in the fourth movement of the Fifth Symphony. He builds excitement with iron discipline and a dramatically contrasting fast central section. The sound is intense, and some will not like the characteristically high timbre of the London Symphony Orchestra trombones. Romeo and Juliet, Francesca da Rimini, and Marche Slav are similar interpretively. The inferno sections of Francesca are electrifying, even though Doráti probably drives the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra beyond its limits. This is one of many Doráti Minneapolis recordings I would have preferred to hear with the London Symphony Orchestra. 

Riccardo Chailly’s recent “rethinking” of the Brahms Symphonies has been critically anointed as a revelation, but Doráti was doing similar things fifty years ago. Both conductors use fast tempos and lighten instrumental textures, but where Chailly is rigid, Doráti is subtly more flexible. That is saying something given that Doráti’s conducting style has been described by some critics as being cold and mechanical.  Mercury’s sound is actually in some ways better than Decca’s Blu-ray audio disc.

A CD of Viennese waltzes has a little extra bite that is typical of Doráti. Sir Hamilton Harty’s orchestrations of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and Water Music are out of fashion now, but they sound luscious, and Doráti certainly does not romanticize them. Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony has plenty of forward thrust and a surprisingly expansive finale that works well. A dazzling collection of music by Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin is one of Mercury’s best-sounding recordings. Doráti’s penchant for transparent instrumental textures and extreme dynamic contrasts works wonders for this brilliantly orchestrated music. His Verdi and Rossini Overtures have extreme rhythmic intensity in the Toscanini tradition, but there is a substantial difference in sound and orchestral execution when comparing the preferable London Symphony Orchestra (Verdi) and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (Rossini). Doráti is not a great Wagnerian, but his Overture and Venusburg Music from Tannhauser breathe fire, and the Preludes to Die Meistersinger, Acts I and III of Lohengrin, and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde all work reasonably well. The transparent and brightly lit sound along with Doráti’s generally swift tempos remove much of the darkness and Teutonic heaviness from Wagner’s scores, as is frequently the case with present day performance preferences.

On the negative side, Doráti’s Scheherazade is surprisingly bland, at least when compared to Fritz Reiner (RCA), and a Richard Strauss CD containing Death and Transfiguration, Don Juan, and Till Eulenspiegel doesn’t work. Doráti’s Der Rosenkavalier Suite is the best and most dramatically coherent of all arrangements of orchestral music from the opera, but the sound is harsh in this early stereo 1955 recording. The same is true of Doráti’s Gaîté Parisienne, but it sounds better here than on the LP. Graduation Ball (a ballet arranged by Doráti from the music of Johann Strauss, Jr.) is a charming one-of-a-kind work. Both are included in a valuable double CD album containing Adam’s complete Giselle with Anatole Fistoulari and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Paul Paray was Mercury’s French specialist, but he was inconsistent elsewhere. As with Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and Chabrier (in Volume Two), his generally fast tempos and lean instrumental textures help to elucidate and lighten the orchestration of the Franck and Chausson Symphonies in contrast to the customary portentous, slow tempos, and his Symphonie Fantastique (also present in Volume One) is excellent. In addition to his swift tempos, Paray’s clipped phrasing and staccato chording invariably add a measure of excitement to his collections of overtures and marches, but those constantly applied stylistic tendencies are less successful in the standard symphonic repertoire (Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Sibelius’s Second Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, and Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony, none of which are competitive with the best recordings). In the Schumann Symphonies, Paray’s style and Mercury’s aggressive sound produce a far different sonority than you would hear from a conventional Schumann expert like Wolfgang Sawallisch. Paray’s music from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is graceless. He also has little natural affinity for Wagner, and the Detroit Symphony does not have the brass section required of a great Wagner orchestra—just listen to how they run roughshod over “Wotan’s Farewell.”

The major Howard Hanson addition is the complete Composer Talks series on two CDs. The Composer and His Orchestra featuring Hanson’s Merry Mount Suite is well known to audiophiles from its longstanding position at the top of HP’s list of recommended recordings. Hanson also made two other similar recordings discussing his Mosaics and For the First Time. Both the music and narration are included here. The smallish Eastman Rochester Orchestra is perfect for an excellent Gershwin collection, including Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F (with Eugene List) plus a dazzling Cuban Overture. There is also an interesting CD containing Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso Nos. 1 and 2 and a Schelemo (with cellist George Miquelle) that is faster, brighter, and less massive in scale than the impassioned Leonard Bernstein/Rostropovich version (EMI).

In addition to the Perfect Presence recordings, Fennell is represented by a spectacularly performed and recorded collection of orchestral marches, an entertaining CD of light classical favorites taken from two LPs, and two symphonic band recordings. You have to really like the sonority of a wind ensemble to enjoy Wagner for Band, but several popular orchestral pieces arranged for wind ensemble (Sullivan’s Pineapple Poll, Rossini-Respighi’s La Boutique Fantasque, and ballet music from Gounod’s Faust) have the usual Fennell flair. Both CDs demonstrate Mercury’s best sound.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski succeeded Doráti as conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, and in the early 1960s made several Mercury recordings, including some elegant Schubert and Mendelssohn symphonies and Schubert’s incidental music from Rosamunde.

The majority of these CDs (with the exception of the newly remastered Tchaikovsky Suites, the Puyana harpsichord collection, and the new-to-CD recordings) are the Mercurys that Wilma Cozart Fine remastered in the 1990s. Since they are not remastered here, they should be sonically identical to the 1990s releases, but some astute listeners claim to hear a very slight improvement in these new editions, primarily in the area of taming the sometimes excessively bright high frequencies and edginess that were less prominent on the LPs. The reason for any subtle sonic improvement is unclear, but according to Tom Fine (son of Wilma Cozart and C. Robert Fine), it would probably be related to sophisticated new efforts to remove jitter, and the glass masters and production parts from the Hanover, Germany, plant where the three box sets were produced (the 1990s Mercury CDs were made at the Philips-Dupont Optics plant in North Carolina). The sound of the new CDs appearing for the first time was improved by complex new transfer and cleanup processes not available in the 1990s.

As with the previous two Mercury sets, the packaging is outstanding. Each CD is contained in an individual sleeve with the original cover art (especially desirable with the Mercury Olympians). The 130-page booklet contains extensive details on each recording, and informative articles by Harold Lawrence, Tom Fine, and Raymond McGill (the album producer) on Mercury Living Presence, the contents of this collection, the remaining 1990s remasters, the three-microphone technique used by Mercury and Philips, the Perfect Presence recordings, the newly released mono and stereo classics, and a discussion of technical issues involved in producing the new CDs.

Anyone who has the first two Mercury Living Presence CD Collections will want to have Volume 3, especially since it contains so much valuable new material. Universal Music deserves credit for treating the legendary Mercury catalog with the respect it deserves. Because of Mercury’s reputation, Universal could have sold numerous albums even if they cut corners, but they applied every available technical advance to assure the quality of these recordings. Given Mercury’s prominent place in the history of high-end audio, every audiophile should have the Mercury Living Presence Collection.

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