Special Features

Mercury Living Presence Collector’s Edition II (55 CD box set)

The second Mercury Living Presence multi-disc set continues the story of this legendary label.

Published on September 14, 2013

Mercury Living Presence Collector’s Edition II (55 CD box set)

Mercury Living Presence Collector’s Edition II [AlbumList  follows] – Box set of 55 CDs with 182-page booklet and original covers – Mercury/Decca/Universal [6/4/13] *****:

As a sequel to the first 51-CD Mercury set released last year, which we also reviewed, this new set offers a wealth of remastered recordings with their original LP covers, artfully mixed down from the 35mm audio film or 3-channel ½-inch tape masters, presenting a huge range of repertory by such names as Antal Dorati, Paul Paray, Janos Starker, Byron Janis, Rafael Puyana, Howard Hanson, Frederick Fennell, Rafael Kubelik and the Romero Family of guitarists.

Mercury, the brainchild of audio engineer and inventor Bob Fine, was born in 1951 with some mono recordings of the Chicago Symphony which used a carefully-placed single mono mic and received better reviews from critics than the major labels’ efforts. Mercury Living Presence went on to make some of the sonically realistic recordings at the beginnings of the stereo era, and these original LPs quickly became some of the most collectible classical discs ever issued.  Fine discovered that “less is more” in making his recordings, and that just three specialized mics in exactly the right places in the hall could reproduce realistic sounds of the orchestra to a very high standard.

NoteBookletMercuryIIsetThere is an extensive 182-page illustrated booklet with the set, which is the same size as the CDs (a handy thing to keep it at hand). It has many photos and most of the notes from the original LP jackets, plus articles on the history and development of the Mercury Label by the son of Wilma Cozart Fine, who was their legendary producer and supervised all of the transfers from the original tapes to the digital format for release on CDs. (About a dozen of the albums were also released as three-channel SACDs.) All the original tape machines, amps and three-to-two-channel mixers were recovered and restored for that transfer operation, so the quality is high. Mercury was one of the first labels to give many details which the true collector loves: the mics, equipment used, recording location, the original engineers and remastering engineers. All this is provided in the note booklet. Once the three mics were all set up, there was no adjustment of orchestral levels or balances, so conductors for Mercury were expected to take care of their orchestral balances in real time. Mercury was known for wider dynamic ranges than most LPs at the time, as well as for cutting grooves closer to the center label. (In fact I removed my mechanical arm lift gadget from my SOTA turntable because my Mercury vinyls usually set it off before the music had ended on a side.) While that’s no concern for CDs, it is laudable that these CD reissues—though done in the mid-1990s—are often filled close to the 80-minute CD maximum, rather than the limited playing time of the original vinyls. (There are also two limited-edition 6-LP vinyl reissue sets of selections from each of these two multi-CD sets.)

There are also two very special CDs in the box set: the classic 1953 mono recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring conducted by Antal Dorati, and the recording premiere of the Piano Concerto of 1968 by John Corigliano, with Hilde Somer as the soloist. That same disc also includes Richard Strauss’ Parergon to the Sinfonia Domestica, as well as a 16-minute interview featuring John Corigliano and Hilde Somer which had originally been a promotional disc sent to reviewers by Mercury in 1969.  (John Corigliano was quite young and his voice belies that, certainly sounding different than when I interviewed him later for my radio series.)

Among the ten CDs featuring Howard Hanson are three of his symphonies, and an interesting series of short works on two CDs which were titled Music for Quiet Listening Volumes 1 & 2. He also conducts music by some of the many American composers which he championed during his years at the Eastman School and with Mercury, such as Piston, Griffes, Kennan, McPhee, Thomson, Moore, Carpenter, Rogers, Chadwick, Gould and Mennin.  There are nine CDs featuring wind band conductor Frederick Fennell, including everything from marches to Hovhaness and Vaughan Williams. Antal Dorati is represented on the most CDs here, totaling 16. They include Beethoven’s Symphonies 5, 6 & 7, Tchaikovsky’s complete Swan Lake and Symphonies 4 & 6, plus Dvorak’s Symphonies 7 & 8, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, The Miraculous Mandarin and The Wooden Prince, and both the Sylvia and Coppelia ballets by Delibes.  Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony are heard on eight of the CDs, mostly of French repertory. A number of the CDs are no longer available as separate CDs and are found only in this set, or at much higher prices on Amazon. (They are indicated below.)

While there are superior recordings available of some of these works, one finds that  they seldom surpass the detailed, clear and realistic soundstage found on these Mercury CDs. Somehow the most delicate sounds come thru more clearly than most of the multi-miced digital recordings that the major labels have been making. And both sets are quite amazing bargains, even at the $115 price of this one on Amazon—about $2 a CD.  I compared several of the first Mercury CD reissues in jewel boxes ($11 each to as much as $76 each on Amazon) to the CDs in this box set and they sounded absolutely identical.  See the Wikipedia entry on Mercury Records for further info, and there is also a good article on Mercury Living Presence by Rudolf A. Bruil at Soundfountain.com

AlbumList – Set contains the following albums on 55 CDs:

Vienna – Schoenberg, Webern, Berg / Doráti, London SO
Doráti Conducts Respighi
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Dance Suite / Doráti
Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances / Doráti
Dvorák: Symphonies No 7 & 8 / Doráti, London SO
Gershwin, Copland, Schuller, Bloch / Doráti, Minneapolis SO
Satie, Milhaud, Auric, Françaix, Fetler / Doráti
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 / Doráti, London SO
Bartók: The Wooden Prince / Doráti, London SO
Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin / Doráti
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 4 / Doráti, London SO
Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 6 / Doráti, London SO (currently only available as part of this box)
Antal Doráti Conducts Albéniz Iberia (currently only available in multi-disc collections)
Bartók: Miraculous Mandarin Suite; Kodály / Doráti, Kubelik
Beethoven: Symphony No 7, Overtures / Doráti, London SO
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake / Doráti, Minneapolis SO (2 CDs; currently only available as part of this box)
Delibes: Coppélia, Sylvia / Doráti, Fistoulari (3 CDs)
Widor, Franck / Marcel Dupré
Frederick Fennell Conducts the Music of Leroy Anderson
Grainger, Persichetti… / Fennell, Eastman Wind Ensemble
Gould, Hovhaness, Giannini / Fennell, Roller, Eastman Wind Ensemble
Country Gardens & Other Favorites / Frederick Fennell (currently only available as part of this box)
Hands Across the Sea / Fennell, Eastman Wind Ensemble (currently only available as part of this box)
Frederick Fennell Conducts the Music of Leroy Anderson & Eric Coates
The Spirit of ’76 and Ruffles & Flourishes / Frederick Fennell (currently only available as part of this box)
Mozart, Strauss, Milhaud / Federick Fennell
Holst, Vaughan Williams… / Fennell, Eastman Wind Ensemble (currently only available as part of this box)
Hanson: Symphonies No 1 & 2, Song of Democracy / Hanson
Gould: Spirituals, Fall River Legend; Barber / Hanson
Hanson Conduct Ives, Schuman, Mennin
Hanson: Symphony No 3, Elegy / Hanson (currently only available in multi-disc collections)
Howard Hanson Conducts Barber, Piston, Griffes…
McPhee: Tabuh-Tabuhan; Sessions, Thomson / Hanson
Moore, Carpenter, Rogers, Phillips / Hanson
Chadwick: Symphonic Sketches; MacDowell, Peter / Hanson
Music for Quiet Listening / Hanson
Music for Quiet Listening Vol 2 / Hanson
Dvorák: Symphony No 9; Mozart: Symphony No 38 / Kubelik (currently only available as part of this box)
Ibert: Escales; Ravel: Rapsodie Espagnole, La Valse… / Paray (currently only available as part of this box)
French Opera Highlights / Paray
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No 3; Paray: Mass / Paray
Chabrier: España, Suite Pastorale…; Roussel: Suite in F / Paray (currently only available as part of this box)
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloë Suite, Boléro; Debussy: Nocturnes, Petite Suite / Paray
Bizet: Carmen Suite, L’Arlésienne Suite; Thomas / Paray
Paul Paray Conducts Dances of Death (currently only available as part of this box)
Debussy: La Mer, Ibéria…; Ravel / Paray
The Golden Age of Harpsichord Music / Rafael Puyana
Puyana Plays Bach
Baroque Masterpieces for the Harpsichord / Puyana
Bartók, Chopin, Debussy, Mendelssohn / János Starker (currently only available as part of this box)
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps / Doráti, Minneapolis SO (1953; currently only available in multi-disc collections)
Corigliano: Piano Concerto; Strauss: Parergon / Hilde Somer (first time on CD; currently only available as part of this box)

John Sunier




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