Special Features

Mercury Living Presence: The Collector’s Edition – 51-CD boxed set

In either form, this is an audiophile’s dream collection!

Published on May 20, 2012

Mercury Living Presence: The Collector’s Edition I
51-CD boxed set – (originally $104; currently $693 on Amazon)

Description: 50 numbered complete albums with the original LP front art and the selection information on the back large enough to read. Reissues expertly remastered in the 1990s by Producer Wilma Cozart Fine. The 50 CDs, in LP-type sleeves, are joined by a 51st Bonus CD with an interview with Wilma Cozart Fine and excerpts from two of their first mono recordings: Ma Vlast and Pictures at an Exhibition. Also a 64-page illustrated booklet with the history of Mercury Records and sections on many of their artists and famous projects, such as their 1812 Overture and recordings made in Russia. The boxed set is also available on 50 vinyl pressings, cut at Emil Berliner Studios and pressed by Optimal on 180 gram vinyl stock. (But with reduced selections on each album due to space restrictions of vinyl.) The price is about 50% greater, and a redemption coupon with each set allows purchasers to make free MP3 or FLAC downloads.

Mercury Living Presence recordings are part of the Golden Age of Classical Recording on vinyl, along with RCA’s Living Stereo, London’s bluebacks, British Decca’s SXL series, EMI’s ASD series, and the early Everests. A number of these classic recordings have been served well in CD and SACD reissues. They have continued the reputation of Mercury Living Presence as one of the most enterprising and sonically-spectacular labels in the history of classical recording. Bob Fine, the recording engineer who had come from Reeves Sound Studio was the main brains behind the Mercury label. He was joined by Wilma Cozart, whom he married in 1957. Harold Lawrence came from NYC’s WQXR to be a primary part of the staff; he also was responsible for all the notes in the accompanying booklet of this set.

It is impossible to give a summary of each and every one of the 50 Mercury CD reissues, but here is a quick overview. The very first two discs are mono, not stereo, being among the label’s first efforts, and using their famous single-mike technique.  The Mercury engineers spent a great deal of time in finding exactly the most optimum position for that one mike and these albums of first The Pictures at an Exhibition plus Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and second the complete “My Country” cycle of Smetana, show the excellent deep-mono sonics the achieved back in 1951 and ‘52. When Mercury began to recording in stereo, they used a three-mike, three-channel tape (later experimenting with the greater fidelity of 35mm mag film) format and the mono center mike remained exactly where it was to serve as the center channel on the master tapes. The three channels were then mixed down to two for final vinyl release, but on the 20 or so Mercury albums that were issued as multichannel SACDs in 2005, all three channels could be experienced for the first time.

Mercury LPs were known among audiophiles as having a distinctive, more in-your-face approach to recording than other labels. The levels on peaks were among the highest of any of the classical labels, and since stereo cartridges during the ‘60s and ‘70s were not at the level of refinement we have today, there were occasional problems with peak distortion.  In fact, Mercury became well known for the many returns of their first 1812 Overture LP effort, because the wide groove excursions of the cannon shots on it were simply too much for most cartridges and tone arms of the time to handle, causing skipping right off the record surface. They were also know for cutting the masters closer to the center label than most others

When the Mercury three-channel tape and mag film masters were remastered as stereo CDs in the 1990s, many enhancements and refinements had been made in professional audio. Restored and highly tweaked tape decks as used originally by Mercury provided the original playback for the CD reissues. Difficulties of tracking peaks were a thing of the past, and the best possible mix of the three channels to the two digital channels (using the original restored special console) could be achieved.

Mercury had a very high level of performing artists on its recordings, many of them with exclusive contracts. Howard Hanson, Rafael Kubelik, Antal Dorati, Frederick Fennell, Paul Paray, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Gina Bachauer, Byron Janis, harpsichordist Rafael Puyana, Janos Starker, Henryk Szeryng, and The Romero Family were some of them. Symphony orchestras included the Minneapolis Symphony, London Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Detroit Symphony, The Eastman-Rochester Symphony and the Eastman Wind Ensemble.

Their various artists had superb connections to provide Mercury with a variety of music that would enlarge the recorded repertory and result in many classic recordings that still set a standard. For example, Antal Dorati, the new music director of the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra), had had a special relationship with Bartok and Kodaly in Budapest, and enriched the repertory by commissioning new works from American composers. Paul Paray of the Detroit Symphony, who had trained at the Paris Conservatoire, was experienced in the French repertory. The Mercury recording van traveled to England for the first time in 1956 to make recordings with both the Hallé Orchestra and the London Symphony. Most of the sessions with the latter occurred in the famous-for-its-acoustics Watford Town Hall, outside London.

Frederick Fennell had a fascination with the music of the Civil War, and with his Eastman Wind Ensemble and other performers recreated the music and its sounds for two Civil War albums for Mercury, which are part of this set. The albums included not only the music on period instruments but also the sounds of authentic guns and cannon. He also did Sousa marches, Mozart’s Serenade K.361 and symphonies of Stravinsky and Hindemith, with his ensemble made up of Eastman School students.

Composer-conductor Howard Hanson was a major addition to the Mercury lineup. He conducts the third CD in the 50-CD set which is one of the most popular Mercury albums ever: Fiesta in Hi-Fi of 1956-59. It boasts lighter works by five American composers, including Robert McBride and William Grant Still, plus Ginastera’s Overture to the Creole Faust. Hanson said he recognized that, at the time, romanticism was the poor stepchild in the music world, but he embraced it nevertheless in this own compositions, in the hopes that one day it would be appreciated. That time is now. Hanson directed the Eastman-Rochester School of Music for four decades, and launched an annual festival of American music which served as the stage for a series of Mercury recordings. In The Composer and His Orchestra CD, Hanson conducts four of his compositions, but we don’t get to hear his comments from the podium which were on the original 2-LP set.

Byron Janis was the 32-year-old pianist who first visited the Soviet Union in 1960.  In 1962 Mercury Records was on the scene in Moscow to record his performances of music of Liszt, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff on three LPs – a first for an American record label. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski led the Minneapolis Symphony in the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich in 1961, heard in this Mercury set. The Polish conductor was known for this thoughtful and sensitive approach. Another of the 50 CDs is his classic reading of the first two orchestral suites from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet ballet, recorded on 35mm film.

A must-have set for this 50-CD collection was the the complete Bach Solo Cello Suites performed by Janos Starker from 1953 to ’56. There are many competitors in the catalog today for these towers of the solo cello repertory, but for my money only the great EMI originals of the 1930s by Pablo Casals (best on a Pristine Audio reissue) compete with Starker’s superb recordings. The set also includes Brahms and Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas and a disc of Italian Cello Sonatas, featuring Starker.

Polish virtuoso violinist Henryk Szeryng did the Brahms Violin Concerto for Mercury, as well as a popular album of Fritz Kreisler Favorites. The modest and unassuming musician was a professor of music at the National University of Mexico and cultural ambassdor for his adopted country.  Gina Bachauer first recorded for Mercury in 1962, doing the Brahms Second Piano Concerto. She never seemed to lose her cool during the demanding phases of the recording process, and spoke in Greek-inflected English. Discs 28 and 50 feature the first family of the guitar, the Romero Family, in varied programs. The first is for from one to four guitars and the second five short concertos with the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra. There is also a thrilling flamenco album by Pepe Romera, joined by one of his brothers on two of the selections. And speaking of strummed strings, a highlight of the set is Disc 30 – Balalaika Favorites – with the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra recorded in the Soviet Union.

It must have been most difficult to choose the 50 albums for this collection, but the Mercury and Universal people did an excellent job selecting from the sizable Mercury library.

Here is a listing of all 51 CDs in the set:

CD 1 - Kubelik / Chicago SO 23 & 24 April 1951  (mono)
Mussorgsky / Ravel: Pictures at an exhibition, Bartók: Music for strings, percussion and celesta

CD 2 - Kubelik / CSO 4-6 December 1952 (mono)
Smetana: Má Vlast

CD 3 - Howard Hanson / Eastman-Rochester Orchestra
Fiesta in Hi-Fi (works of McBride, Nelson, Mitchell, Vardell, William Grant Still, Ginastera’s Ouverture to a Creole Faust)
Recorded: Oct. 1956 (1-4, 6), May 1956 (5), October 1959 (7-9)

CD 4 - Dorati / Minneapolis Symphony /Philharmonia Hungarica
Kodály (Hary Janos-Suite, Galanta & Marosszek Dances) & Bartók (Hungarian Sketches, Roumanian Dances)
Háry János, Hungarian Sketches and Roumanian Folk Dances were recorded on 17 Nov. 1956; Marosszék and Galánta were recorded on 2 June 1958 in the Grosse Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna.

CD 5 - Menuhin, v. / Dorati / Minneapolis Symphony
Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2 (17 Feb. 1957); Second Suite (26 Nov. 1955)

CD 6 - Frederick Fennell / Eastman-Rochester Pops
Hi-Fi a la Española (25 March 1957) & Excerpts from Popovers (1959)

CD 7 - Dorati / London Symphony Orchestra /Minneapolis Symphony
Prokofiev: Scythian Suite; Love for Three Oranges (4 July 1957); Symphony 5 (November 1959)

CD 8 - Howard Hanson – The Composer and his Orchestra – with Merry Mount-Suite (Oct. 1957), Mosaics (May 1960), “For the First Time” (May 1963) and Piano Concerto (May 1965)

CD 9 - Dorati / Minneapolis Symphony
Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture (April 1958); Capriccio Italien (Dec. 1955)
Beethoven: Wellington’s Victory (June 1960)

CD 10 - Dorati / Minneapolis Symphony (5-6 April 1958)
Dvorák: Slavonic Dances, Opp. 46 & 72

CD 11 - Howard Hanson / Eastman-Rochester Orchestra
Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite (5 May 1958); Herbert: Cello Concerto No. 2 (Georges Miquelle, 20 Oct. 1957); Grofé: Mississipi-Suite (4 & 5 May 1958)

CD 12 - Frederick Fennell / Eastman Wind Ensemble
British and American Band Classics, with Gordon Jacob Suite “William Byrd”, Walton Crown Imperial March, Holst Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo (21 November 1958), Robert Russell Bennett Symphonic Songs, Clifton Williams Fanfare and Allegro (3 May 1959)

CD 13 - Dorati / Minneapolis Symphony /London Symphony Orchestra
Stravinsky: Petrouchka (4 April 1959); Le Sacre du printemps (15 November 1959); Four Etudes

CD 14 - Paray / Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Suppé (29 Nov. 1959) & Auber (4 April 1959): Overtures

CD 15 - Paray / Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (Nov. 1959); Hungarian March (April 1959); Trojan March (April 1959); The Corsaire, Overture (March 1958); The Roman Carnival, Overture (March 1958).

CD 16 - Frederick Fennell / Eastman Wind Ensemble
Sousa: Sound Off! & Sousa on Review: 24 Favorite Marches

CD 17 - Dorati / London Symphony Orchestra
Enesco: Roumanian Rhapsody No.1 / Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies 1-6
(Enesco + HR 1 & 3: 13 & 14 June 1960; HR 2,4-6: 19-21 July 1963)

CD 18 - Dorati / London Symphony Orchestra (15 and 17 June 1960)
Khachaturian: Gayaneh
Skrowaczewski / Minneapolis Symphony (25 March 1961)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

CD 19 - Dorati / London Symphony Orchestra
Enesco: Roumanian Rhapsody No.2 (14 June 14, 1960)
Brahms: Hungarian Dances; Haydn Variations
Hungarian Dances tracks 2-8 and Haydn Variations: 6, 7, and 9 July 1957
Hungarian Dances tracks 9-17: 31 July and 2 August 1965

CD 20 & 21 - The Civil War, Parts 1 & 2 – Its music and its sounds
Frederick Fennell / Eastman Wind Ensemble (December 1960)

CD 22 - Byron Janis, p. / London Symphony Orch. /Minneapolis Sym. / Dorati
Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 3 (16-17 June 1961) & 2, 2 Preludes (17-18 April 1960)

CD 23 - Dorati / London Symphony Orchestra / Minneapolis Symphony
Copland: Appalachian Spring; Billy the Kid (15 & 16 June 1961); Danzón Cubano; El Salón México (20 Dec. 1957)

CD 24 - Byron Janis, p. / Minneapolis Symphony / Dorati
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an exhibition piano original (25-29 Sept. 1961) + Ravel orchestration (21 April 1959)
Chopin Etude & Waltz (11 June 1962)

CD 25 - Minneapolis Symphony / Skrowaczewski (23 April 1962)
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 & 2
London Symphony Orchestra / Dorati (8 June 1960)
Mussorgsky: Night on the bare mountain

CD 26 - Byron Janis, p. / Minneapolis Symphony / Skrowaczewski /
Schumann: Piano Concerto (21 April 1962); Arabeske
London Symphony / Menges
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (7-8 June 1960)

CD 27 - Pepe Romero, guitar (April 1962)
Flamenco!

CD 28 - The Romeros
The Royal Family of the Spanish Guitar (13-18 April 1962)

CD 29 - Frederick Fennell / Eastman Wind Ensemble
Screamers – Circus Marches (5 May 1962) / March Time (16 Oct. 1957)

CD 30 - Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra / Vitaly Gnutov
Balalaika Favorites (13 & 16 June 1962)

CD 31 - Byron Janis, p./ Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra / Kondrashin
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra / Rozhdestvensky
Liszt: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 (14 & 15 June 1962) and Miscellaneous pieces from Liszt, Falla, Guion and Schumann (Oct. 1961 & June 1962)

CD 32 - Byron Janis, p./ Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra / Kondrashin
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.3 (8-9 June 1962)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 1 (13 June 1962)
Various solo pieces by Mendelssohn, Pinto, Schumann, Prokofiev (11 June 1961)

CD 33 - Janos Starker, c. / London Symphony Orchestra / Dorati
Dvorák: Cello Concerto, Bruch: Kol Nidrei (6-7 & 10 July 1962); Tchaikovsky: Rococo Variations (26-27 June 1964)

CD 34 - Janos Starker, c./ London Symphony Orchestra / Skrowaczewski / Dorati
Schumann: Cello Concerto; Lalo: Cello Concerto (9-10 July 1962)
Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto in A minor (26 June 1964)

CD 35-36 - Dorati / London Symphony Orchestra /Philharmonia Hungarica
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (11, 13, 15 July 1962); Serenade for Strings (June 1958)

CD 37 - Henryk Szeryng / London Symphony Orchestra / Dorati
Brahms: Violin Concerto (18 & 22 July 1962); Khachaturian: Violin Concerto (4 July 1964)

CD 38 - Dorati / London Symphony Orchestra
Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle (19-21 July 1962); Berg: Wozzeck: 3 excerpts (19 June 1961)

CD 39 - Gina Bachauer / London Symphony Orchestra / Skrowaczewski
Brahms: Piano Concerto No.2 (6-8 & 10 July 1962), Paganini Variations Book II, Liszt Hungarian Rapsodie No. 12 (20 & 26 February 1963), Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 9 (9 July 1963)

CD 40 - Henryk Szeryng, Charles Reiner
Kreisler Favorites (22-23 January, 13-14 February 1963)

CD 41 & 42 - Janos Starker
Bach: 6 Suites for unaccompanied cello .(2 & 5: April 1963, 1 & 6: Sept. 1965, 3 & 4: Dec. 1965), Sonatas for Viola da Gamba BWV 1027-1029 (with Gyorgy Sebök, April 1963)

CD 43 - Gina Bachauer, p. / London Symphony Orch. /Dorati / Skrowacewski
Beethoven: Piano Concertos 4 (7-8 July 1963) & 5 (5-6 July 1962)

CD 44 - Gina Bachauer / London Symphony Orchestra / Dorati
Chopin: Piano Concertos 1 (8-9 July 1963) & 2 (22-23 June 1964)

CD 45 - Gina Bachauer, p. / Sir John Gielgud, narr.
Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit, Debussy: Pour le piano, three Preludes (1965)
Stravinsky: 3 Movements from Petrouchka (1963)

CD 46 - Janos Starker / György Sebok
Brahms (25 & 26 June 1964) & Mendelssohn (9 July 1962): Cello Sonatas

CD 47 - Henryk Szeryng / London Symphony Orchestra / Dorati
Schumann & Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos (5 & 3 July 1964)
+ solo pieces by Bartók, Debussy, Novák, Brahms, Marroquin and Rimsky-Korsakov (13 & 14 February 1963)

CD 48 - London Symphony Orchestra / Dorati
Stravinsky: The Firebird – complete (7-9 June 1959); Feu d’artifice; Chant du rossignol, Tango, Scherzo à la Russe (22 June-7 July 1964)

CD 49 - Janos Starker
Italian Cello Sonatas
Bach Sonata in G Minor BWV 1029 (Gyorgy Sebök, 16 and 17 April 1963), Vivaldi, Corelli, Locatelli, Valentini, Boccherini (Stephen Swedish, 6-7 June 1966)

CD 50 - The Romeros/ San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, Victor Alessandro (November 1967)
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez (Angel); Concierto Andaluz (Celedonio, Celin, Pepe, Angel); Vivaldi: 3 Concertos

CD 51 – Bonus CD – Interview with Wilma Cozart Fine and two excerpts from Mercury mono classics

—John Sunier




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