Wilma Cozart Fine: The Muse of Mercury

Wilma Cozart Fine: The Muse of Mercury

The words Wilma Cozart Fine lived by were “Trust your ears.” This oft-repeated phrase was more than a mantra; it was the guiding principle that defined her working life. For those who don’t know the name, hers was a working life to remember.

In the words of Robert E. Greene, TAS writer, mathematician, and violinist, in a letter to me: “Her work [as Music Director for Mercury Living Presence classic recordings during the mid-1950s to mid-60s] speaks for itself. It is amazing to think that fifty years later the recordings still stand as outstanding accomplishments in audio, even by contemporary standards. One listens not as if to historical material, but simply to the music as music and the virtues of the recording [as engineered by her husband, C. Robert Fine] as just that, impressive virtues indeed. In a world of such rapid technological change, this is startling.

“And some of the music recorded there deserves to be immortal—Starker, Janis, performances that will never die thanks to [Mercury’s] work and that will never lose their interest as long as classical music lives (may that be forever).”

Cozart Fine was a creature of seeming contradictions. She was a pragmatic, hardheaded visionary, the sharpness of whose business and artistic judgments were matched by the acuity of her hearing. She had an exact memory of the sound of the music she had heard, and used that as a reference with which to assess any reproductions of it.

She started working for Mercury Records when it was mostly a pop label, taking over its quite small classical section. She built it into a force to be reckoned with, imitated by all the major American labels, even RCA Victor. She signed the Chicago Symphony, Frederick Fennell and the Eastman-Rochester Winds, Antal Dorati, Paul Paray, and Howard Hanson. She oversaw the first American recordings made in Cold War Russia, and authored marketing innovations still copied to this day.

Cozart Fine became the keeper of the flame at Mercury Records, working tirelessly, and with an uncompromising will (“the iron fist inside the velvet glove” is a phrase used by more than one associate who worked with her) to preserve the sound of the “Living Presence” recordings which she essentially produced, while her husband, Bob Fine, provided the engineering know-how to achieve a simulacrum which was, at heart, as closely faithful to the original as the technology allowed. Because of her musical training, both in college and afterward, she subscribed undeviatingly to the concept of the absolute sound itself as the final reference—unamplified music occurring in a real space. And, as a result, virtually every one of the Living Presence issues on LP is a prime example of the recorded art. If there is a sonic dud in the bunch, I haven’t heard it, nor, for that matter, has any other working critic I’ve read. Her work, her adherence to the real, became my inspiration.

Wilma Cozart Fine died in late September 2009, at the age of 82. I received this note from one of her four sons, Christopher: “She valued her friendship with you. . . and really enjoyed the dialog she had with you. She appreciated…the fact that you shared her passion for the music and the recordings. We owe you a sincere thanks for urging her to get re-involved with her life’s work. . . Mom’s second act in the recording business [the creation of the transfer of the original Mercury recordings to CD] was a godsend for her. It was tough on her, and she drove herself perhaps a bit too hard, but she was happy with the output and the fact that she was able to get the catalog back in print. . . It meant a lot to her. And it all meant so much to us—to hear the music alive again.”

This letter prompted me to search through my notes and memories and to talk with some who had either known her or her work. I had known her maiden name Wilma Cozart from reading the liner notes on the Mercury recordings, which I obsessively (well, almost) collected during my college days, after the sound bug really bit me. It was the only way I could think of to get closer to the music, since I grew up in a culture where there was almost no live music. Recordings and their playback gear were my window into that world. She was usually listed as the “recording director” in the LP liner notes (themselves unique at the time in crediting the production staff and site of the recording). Cozart as a woman was, at that time, almost singular in such a role in the record business.

I didn’t know in those early days how she had arrived at her position. Later I learned that as a young woman from Mississippi transplanted to Texas, she had, after graduating from college, gone to work for Antal Dorati at the Dallas Symphony as his personal secretary, and later, as the de facto orchestra manager. When Dorati took over the Minneapolis Symphony, she joined him there. Later, she moved to New York City, looking for new worlds to conquer and she wound up, probably to her surprise, with a job at Mercury Records, put in charge of that label’s tiny classical music department.

Five years later, in 1956, she was named vice-president of Mercury. The next year after that, she married C. Robert (Bob) Fine, whose engineering and technical genius had created the unique Living Presence sound, with whom she had worked hand-and-glove. They continued to work together, creating the unparalleled Mercury list. She retired in 1964 (after the company was acquired by Philips) to raise the two sons she had borne with Fine, and then rather promptly had two more. And this is when she disappeared from public life. (As it turned out, in one of the least reported and most fascinating changes of professional venue, she began to sell real estate in upstate New York—“upstate” meaning north of the city, in Westchester County. This she did to help put her sons through college and to stay, financially, afloat. She made money at this. So much so that, in 1989 when Philips called her about working on the CD re-issues, she was ready, willing, and able to return to work.)

One of her sons, Tom, put her decision to return to private life this way: “As a mother she was sweet, honest and tough as nails, the exact combination you need to raise four boys successfully and live to tell about it.”

These were surely the characteristics that had made her so successful in her profession at a time when women were rare in the industry.

Long after her retirement, I started The Absolute Sound and began compiling the earliest versions of the Super Disc list, citing many stereo versions of the Living Presence series as super LPs, and using these as references by which to judge the truth of audio equipment. Since the goal of the Cozart-Fine team was to recreate a facsimile of the sound they were hearing in the halls at recording sessions, and to do this authentically, they used a minimalist approach, with no more than three mikes across the orchestral soundstage, refusing to play jiggerypook with dynamics, equalization, and all the other tricks that engineers are usually prone to. All of which was right down my alley, and thanks to Cozart’s tireless recruiting, Mercury signed up artists of unusual distinction and often found out-of-the-way music that deserved a wider audience.

As the magazine prospered, I began to wonder what happened to Cozart. I started to search for her in the mid-1980s. She got wind of this, and sent two of her sons, Christopher and Matthew, to visit me in Sea Cliff (actually, to check me out). That listening session was so electric that, one night several moons later, the phone rang, and I heard a sweet, smallish voice, southern-tinged, saying, “This is Wilma Fine.” And I found I was not walking on the kitchen floor but dancing in air. (That was in 1985 just after the fire that wiped out much of my treasured collection of Mercurys, which I couldn’t then afford to replace.) It wasn’t long before she came to Sea Cliff and we began the first of many listening sessions here. These were the horror of my assistants and set-up equipment guys, because Wilma, using her Mercurys as a reference, found every flaw in whatever system we had going, and did not rest until the equipment got out of the way of the music (and, to be sure, sounded much, much better for the experience).

We stayed close. I named her to the magazine’s first (and only) Audio Hall of Fame, along with Gordon Holt, who was as influential in my thinking in the journalistic sense as Wilma was in the musical. And not too long after she began, with Philips’ blessing, the transfer of the Living Presence catalog to compact disc (this in 1989, when CD transfers were, at best, crude approximations of the originals). She brought her own exacting standards to the task, as well as most of the original equipment, from discs to tapes, magnetic and 35mm. The first two batches of CD issues were done with Dennis Drake, who recalls the hundreds of hours working together:

“Wilma believed our ears don’t lie and that we should always ‘trust our ears.’ Consistent with this belief, she always insisted that we do constant comparisons back to the original source, i.e., 3-track or 35mm masters to the digital transfers, the digital transfers to the original LPs. This proved invaluable when some of the first CD test pressings came back from the plant sounding like cardboard imitations of the original (it turned out the Laser Beam Recorder, LBR, was introducing jitter in the digital audio soundstream). She always had great descriptive ways of analyzing the sounds we were listening to, with comments like ‘pinched,’ ‘more electronic sounding,’ ‘solidity,’ ‘more air,’ ‘mushy bottom,’ and even better, ‘bowl of soup.’ She felt that the midrange of the sound spectrum was the most critical and the hardest to reproduce. Even in the very late 1980s, when digital was still developing and we were learning about dither, jitter, and the like, we would often crack up over some of the things we heard coming from some of the early digital boxes.”

In particular, both grew to despise the Sony 1600 and started a search for a musical-sounding A-to-D converter, winding up favoring a dCS unit, where they could work with 24 bits that they re-dithered down to 16 for the Sony system. (I attended at least one of these sessions and got to see some of the work in progress and hear the awe-inspiring Mercury originals. Later, Wilma bought R-DAT copies of the transfers to Sea Cliff to play back on my system to see if I thought the CD transfers did justice to the originals.)

I learned from her experiences with the CD transfers, since I was able to hear some of the comparisons. She insisted that CDs and original LPs represented two different views of the original, that neither was a perfect replica, and that both told different, but equally valid truths about the originals. What I learned from this was to accept digital sound and its possibilities on their own terms and not get caught up with misguided euphonic tube-like colorations that were themselves a distortion of the original.

I think it sad that she did not get a chance to oversee the transfers of the original three-channel tapes to the SACD medium. They were done by others and in Europe, with the first batch especially sounding unlike anything Mercurial. One can only wonder what wonders, using high-resolution DSD technology, she would have wrested out of the originals, in what might well have been the closest replication.

Her last major project deserves mention: a series of the best-sounding Mercury tapes recut using the best available technology, disc-cutting far in advance of what was available 40 or so years before. These six discs she did, working with Bernie Grundman and Mike Hobson at Classic Records, and they may indeed be the closest we shall ever come to hearing the best of Mercury. These performances were released on 45-rpm LPs, and singly, as well, on Quiex surfaces. They are a wonder, a true wonder, to hear. I have no info on whether they did not sell up to Classic’s expectations or whether they are still in the catalog there. If they are not, you can find them if you look on-line. (Some, far from all, of her CDs are still available from Universal Music Group; the others, as licensed CD-Rs from www.arkivmusic.com. Even iTunes has quite a few.) The 45-rpm LPs are:

Stravinsky: The Firebird. Dorati. The London Symphony.
Perhaps the best reading, sonically and interpretively on disc. The concluding side (the third) will sear your eye and earballs.

Chabrier: Espana. Paray. The Detroit Symphony.
There are a number of shorter works also on the disc, but it is the Espana that borders on the miraculous, given the concert-hall-like acoustic the Mercury team found at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. As perfect balanced a recording as I know, and one that does full justice to Paray’s authentic and joyful reading of the work. Pay attention to the ambient pattern of the hall, and Mercury’s sweetness of sound in the upper registers.

Ravel: La Valse. Ibert: Escales. Paray. Detroit. There are several other cuts on this disc, also made in Cass and recorded on 35mm film. It’s the La Valse you have to hear, particularly in Paray’s almost apocalyptic reading, one that suggests Vienna and Austria waltzing their way into the destruction of the Second World War.

Hi-Fi a la Espanola. Fennell. Eastman-Rochester “Pops” Orchestra. Short ultra-fi warhorses with a latino flavoring. One of the rarest of Mercurys back in the LP days, whose bass drum laid many a cartridge low. Very vivid; much presence.

Balalaika Favorites. Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra. The cover note almost says it all: First recordings ever made in the Soviet Union by American technical and musical staff and equipment, recorded by Mercury on location in Moscow. Russian bon-bons, with a sensational number of plucked and percussive instruments. For these ears, a little bit goes a long way, but what a way to go.

Prokofiev: Love for Three Oranges. Scythian Suite. Dorati, London Symphony. Dorati, the Mercury team, the London players, all at the top of their considerable form. The Three Oranges is the best on record, and the wild and woolly Scythian (heavily in debt to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring) was, in its LP days, another of Mercury’s cartridge-killer discs and just in the first few minutes. Intense, visceral, with Prokofiev at his most barbaric, before he went back to Russia and got tamed by the Stalinites.