You can understand why connoisseurs so liked this recording when, in the Saint-Saens symphony, you hear the entry of the organ in the last movement. This is certainly not an instrument for which the Living Presence treatment was too forceful, and the organ in Detroit’s Ford Auditorium sounds well up to the challenge.
The taste that you feel informs all these recordings is distinctly of its era. What the producers are doing, you feel, is searching out works that could be considered cutting edge, with few Romantic-era classics, little piano music and no opera. They were aiming at the young, perhaps (Mercury had begun life putting out folk, jazz and popular music). But for the most part these new LPs were instead snapped up by audiophiles.
Mercury’s initial secret was to use only one microphone. This was an unusually sensitive device that was suspended centrally above the orchestra and caught, it was hoped, the normal balance as heard by audiences. Later they changed to using three microphones similarly placed.
Technical details for all the recordings are included. Of the Bartok concerto on CD3, for instance, we learn that it was recorded “at Wembley Town Hall, outside London, on 3-track 35mm film, using three Schoeps M201 microphones.” Elsewhere we learn that these omnidirectional microphones were handmade by the Schoeps family, and that Mercury early on used a KM56 microphone on either side of the central Schoeps one, until finally in 1959 acquiring enough Schoeps to use them exclusively. Six were needed because backups were mandatory for all technical items given the expense of gathering a symphony orchestra for a new session in the event of equipment malfunction.
Included in this boxed set as bonus CDs are a particularly hard-hitting mono version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that Dorati made with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra) in 1953, and a piano concerto by the US composer John Corigliano, recorded in 1969. This is the latter’s first-ever release on CD.
This boxed set is recommended even if you only like half its contents. Its limits in terms of content are obvious, but its value in the history of recorded sound is undeniable.