MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE 2
Mercury Living Presence 4785092
In the early 1950s, the music critic of New York Times said the sound of a new LP of Rafael Kubelik conducting Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was “as if being in the living presence of the orchestra.” The new recording technique was secret, though in fact remarkably simple, but the critic’s phrase was a godsend, and the Mercury Living Presence series was born.
Now two boxed sets of these iconic recordings from the 1950s and 1960s have been issued, the second of them in June this year. The original LPs have been transferred to CD, but only using techniques related to those that created the originals. At US$85.59 for 55 CDs on www.amazon.com, this second box is remarkable value.
The first box is no longer available except at very high prices from specialist dealers, though an Amazon online critic announced last week that he’s been assured by the manufacturers that it will be available again, presumably at something like the original price, from Nov. 4. We will therefore review here the second boxed set, which at over 50 hours contains more than enough to recommend it.
The sound itself is, even today, often extraordinary vivid. It may even have been too vivid for some European listeners in those far-off days, but they clearly soon got used to it because the series became a major market success. Our view is that the distinctive sharp-edged clarity is more appropriate to some compositions than others, but that where orchestral works are concerned you can almost never fail to be impressed.
Certain names dominate the series. First and foremost is the Hungarian-born conductor Antal Dorati, and the numbered series of these new CDs begins with his ground-breaking recordings of central modernist items, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra and Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra and Lulu Suite (CD1). The sound, as recorded here from the London Symphony Orchestra, is both searing and impeccable.
CD3 presents Dorati’s version of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra with the same orchestra, coupled with other Bartok items with the Philharmonia Hungarica. Dorati knew Bartok well, and had been taught piano by him at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy. There are in all 21 recordings by Dorati in this series.
Then there’s the US conductor Frederick Fennell (nine items), whose specialty was making band music acceptable to classically-attuned audiences. Some of the military marches he conducts here, such as the Valdes March, go through you like a knife. Also with nine items is the US composer Howard Hanson, who on two occasions is heard conducting his own symphonies.
The area where the Mercury Living Presence sound is least welcome is in music for solo harpsichord. There are three such items, with Rafael Puyana as instrumentalist (on one disc joined by fellow-harpsichordist Genoveva Galvez). Loud and emphatic harpsichord playing had been pioneered by Wanda Landowska in the inter-war years, and the effect here is nothing if not overwhelming. But you can, of course, always turn down the volume.
Then there’s the French composer Paul Paray (eight items, all with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, of which he was resident conductor). His justly celebrated 1958 recording of Saint-Saens’ Symphony No: 3 (“Organ”) is included here, coupled with his own Mass for the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc (CD44).