November 2004 - Special Feature
THE MERCURY SACDs - SPECIAL REPORT
Since the first five of the new Mercury Living Presence three-channel SACDs are now available everywhere and the next five have been released as Im writing this but not yet received here, Id like to update readers on this unusual hi-res reissue event without waiting until our December 1 issue. The general idea here is that this hi-res reissue project turned out much better than the RCA Living Stereo one, but the discs sell for the full price rather than the mid-price point of the RCAs.
Part of the reason for the terrific sonics of the new hi-res Merc might be that though - as with the Living Stereos - they were not played back on the original Ampex machines with tubed electronics, the German engineers used one of Wilma Cozart Fines own Ampexes for constant comparison and mixing. And they really used their ears, because these transfers are nothing but superb.
Ill start with the best of the bunch so far - the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3, with Byron Janis, and Antal Dorati conducting the London and Minneapolis Symphonies. Though one of the other Byron Janis Mercuries utilized their 35mm film recording technique, this one used tape, but it is probably the most exciting version both sonically and performance-wise one could possibly expect of both concertos. I had two other SACDs of the Third Concerto plus two of the Second. Volodos brought in a very exciting and virtuosic performance of the Third on a Sony Classical stereo SACD, but the sound was quite distant and way too wide a spread of the piano sound - in fact it sounds like two pianos, and there is no middle to the soundstage at all.
Stephen Hough on a new Hyperion set of all four Rachmaninoff concertos spent time studying the composers own recorded performances of all four concertos, and pulls out all the tricks of Late Romantic-style pianistic fireworks in his well-recorded SACD set. There is the rubato, the sudden speeding up in some passages, the pauses for effect, the headlong pianist flights at some points. But the sonics are a bit distant and even though these live concerto recordings with the Dallas Symphony do sound more Rachmaninoffy than most, they lack the center channel of the Mercuries - being 4.0 channel - are just plain less exciting than the Byron Janis sides.
Mercury did all of their recordings with three channels and three mics, mixing the center channel equally to the left and right channels for the LP mastering. The hi-res multichannel formats allow for the first time for such master recordings to be heard the way they originally were heard in the studio. The CD layer on all these hybrid SACDs contains the two-channel mixes carefully created for CD reissue in the early l990s by Wilma Cozart Fine. To my ears they sound identical to the CD-only versions - neither better nor worse. But they never matched the sonics of the original Mercury LPs, being harder and more forward sounding and with that digital edginess. The stereo SACD layer is a great improvement, with a warmer and more analog-sounding mix that retains the clarity and impact of the originals. However, the center of the orchestra lacks definition behind the piano and the piano itself sounds far too wide. It is the three-channel playback (if you have a center channel that matches up usefully with your L & R frontal speakers) that really demonstrates the impact of these wonderful recordings. (Another online publication has scooped me on reviewing these, but the writer had no center speaker and reviewed only the stereo mixes, which seems rather beside the point.)
Janis piano as well as the orchestra is more in your face, but both the performance and sonics are so exciting that you wont want to move back. The piano still sounds mighty big but it is centered on the very wide soundstage and both it and the orchestra itself benefits from a very open and transparent sound that is nothing short of breathtaking. There is more depth than with the two-channel version. You can dive into the super-emotional music, air-conduct, dance or whatever you want to do; this recording almost demands interactivity! Both the solo instrument and the orchestral sounds are almost holographic in the three-channel version. The hiss level is very low because Mercury tended to cram as much level as technically possible onto the tape in this pre-Dolby -A era. This has got to be the hands-down winner in the Battle of the Rach Bands.
The overly-familiar Second Concerto provided an interesting A/B comparison of the Mercs with the Living Stereo SACDs (2 Rach 2s in 3 Channels). Van Cliburn is heard in the work on the RCA 3-channel reissue, along with the Tchaikovsky First Concerto. Both display similar wide stereo soundstages in three channels, with solid placement of the piano in the center, and considerable depth to the orchestral sound. The two performers styles are strikingly similar and the sound is quite transparent - though more so on the Mercury. However, the Living Stereo has noticeable distortion, especially in the right channel in the string section of the orchestra. Cliburns piano tone is more clanky and tinkly and lacks the rich low-end foundation heard in Janis piano.
Respighis Ancient Airs and Dances Suites, with Antal Dorati conducting the Philharmonia Hungarica, was one of my favorites on Mercury vinyl. I was unable to put my finger on the vinyl for an A/B just now but I couldnt be happier with the exquisite detail and fine textures of the string sounds of the SACD, especially when they are plucked. Not a hint of string digititus here! The orchestra has more depth and richness in three channels, though the improvement is more subtle than the jump from standard CD to stereo SACD. Most prominent was the increase in low bass support in the three channel, giving a richer sound to the orchestra. The pizzacatto section at the beginning of Track 3 is glorious, giving a real image of string players in the orchestra. The CD layer had the same sort of harsh and strained sound as the original CDs and the strings were afflicted by digititus. The whole was flat-sounding at 44.1. The SACD stereo option provided an improvement in clarity, much better string tone and more separation of the different sections of the orchestra and instruments withint the sections. Altogether more musical.
The Paul Paray collection of Overtures by Franz Suppe looks like the sort of thing that might be a complete bore on a standard CD, but this thrilling three-channel SACD will get your circulation going and make you feel like theres some sort of celebration going on even when there isnt. The dynamic range is wide and the transient impact of some of the music is really something to hear. There are six Suppe overtures plus three from Auber, and the Detroit Symphony turns in sparkling performances of every one. Most entertaining listening and highly recommended.
Dorati conducts the London Symphony in the complete Firebird Ballet of Stravinsky, along with the Song of the Nightingale and three Stravinsky encores. This is another winner in the three-channel form. The spread, depth and sense of envelopment from the orchestra is such that one doesnt miss the surround channels at all (though I have occasionally wished there was a way to feed the L & R channels thru the Dolby Pro Logic II decoder and channel it only to the surrounds). There is a lot going on in these works and the great resolution of detail in the orchestra is very important in sorting out the complexities. Even in big climaxes there is no straining, as I used to sometimes hear on the original Mercury LPs (but perhaps that was due to the cartridges available back then lacking the accuracy of todays high end cartridges).
Famed cellist Janos Starker has recorded the six complete Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello several times, but this version for Mercury Living Presence has to be not only his best-recorded but perhaps the best-recorded from any cellist. The towering version by Pablo Casals from 1930s 78s remains a super classic - especially in the amazing restoration on an Italian classical label whose name slips my mind at the moment - and I wont be getting rid of it. But Starker has a more modern style, informed by more recent musicological research, but certainly not bereft of emotional communication.
I remember how early in the stereo era many recordings of solo instruments such as piano remained mastered in mono while orchestral recordings were stereo. It was felt that a single instrument did not benefit from two-channel reproduction. Well, that was obviously wrong, and three channels is obviously even better than two. The fantastic variety of musical textures realized by this single instrument are communicated with a great presence full of impact and with plenty of air around the sound source. The cello is most music listeners favorite instrument but even if it isnt yours, get this magnificent double SACD (which sells for the price of a single disc).
Im looking forward with baited breath to the next batch of 3-channel Mercuries!
- John Sunier