Classical CD reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Sep 26, 2013 - Page 11


Boxed Set

55 CDs

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, 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).

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.