Mercury Living Presence Six LP Selection – “The Collector’s Edition” = Universal vinyl set

Mercury Living Presence Six LP Selection – “The Collector’s Edition” = Disc 1: RESPIGHI: Roman Festivals; Church Windows – Minneapolis Sym./Antal Dorati (mono); Disc 2: Wienerwalzer Paprika – Philharmonia Hungarica/Antal Dorati; Disc 3:  BLOCH: Concerti Grossi Nos. 1 & 2 – Eastman-Rochester Orch./ Howard Hanson; Disc 4: FRANCK: Sym. in d – Detroit Sym./Paul Paray; Disc 5: Ballet for Band – Eastman Wind Ens./ Frederick Fennell; Disc 6: Paray Conducts WAGNER – Detroit Sym./ Paul Paray – Universal Music Classics (6 LPs) 478 8058, limited edition numbered LP Set. Pressing by OPTIMAL on 180 gr. vinyl at Abbey Road Studios. In rigid LP box, each with its original record sleeve, with color 12” booklet in English incl. essay by Thomas Fine, a paragraph on each recording – setting out location, dates, mics, engineer, producer.

Well, this is quite a package for turntable fans. Universal has selected six of the many recordings made by the Mercury Living Presence team during their heyday and remastered brand new vinyl LPs in a lovely boxed set. At the same time the third and last of the boxed reissues of all of the Mercury albums on standard CDs has come out and will be reviewed separately; it consists of 53 CDs.

The first thing in the package is the 12-inch color booklet titled “The True Story of A Legendary Label.” Much the same thing is also included in the 53-CD package, but of course reduced to 5-inch size. The first disc is the mono session of 1954 which Mercury was very proud of, and understandably so. It was before C. Robert Fine developed the three-microphone system which Mercury used for nearly all of their future recordings from the mid-‘50s on. A single Neumann U-47 mic was placed at an exact location in Minneapolis’ Northrup Auditorium, and the two selections were chosen to show what the symphony orchestra could achieve in the way of power and variety of sonority. Both Roman Festivals and Church Windows use a lot of additional things to complement the standard orchestra, and the final note of Church Windows is remembered by all audiophiles for the triple-forte solo tam-tam crash.

As was done with all the Mercury CD versions, as well as all the vinyls – both the originals and these reissues – the original three-channel master tapes have all been mixed down to two channels for release, most of them by Wilma Cozart, who was part of the Mercury team from the very beginning. Only the 15 or so SACDs which were released at one time by Universal have the original three front channels – which, like the RCA ones – sound just fabulous – even on systems without a center channel identical to the left and right speakers.

The first of the albums I tried after the mono one – which sounded really good even though I don’t have one of those fancy mono-only setups some audiophiles have, I turned my attention to the Bloch Concerti Grossi. I have the original Mercury vinyl of that release, as well as the CD reissue which is part of the third boxed set of Mercury reissues which just came out. And that is my favorite album of all the Mercury Living Presence albums; unfortunate that it never came out on a three-channel SACD.

They’ve kept the same record number of both vinyls – SR 90223. These sessions took place in 1959. Bloch only used the concerto grosso form as a point of departure, and the first one departs the most from the form, using the piano as a more important part of the sound than as just a continuo instrument.  The strings of the Eastman-Rochester Symphony are just gorgeous in the especially enthalling First Concerto. Comparing the three versions was just as I had expected: the original Mercury vinyl won hands down, the remaster in this special 6-LP boxed set came in a close second, and the CD reissue was third.  Looking at the grooves on the original compared to the reissue is a giveaway about Mercury’s penchant for recording grooves extremely close to the center label – never mind the increasing distortion that happens in that area (or the fact that most automatic arm-lift gadgets lift too soon on the Mercuries).  The 6-LP set remasters leave a sizeable space prior to the center label. They are at a lower level than the original Mercurys – I recall that Mercury was criticized at the time for turning out LPs at a higher level than everyone else, and the new reissues do have a lower overall volume level. Everything else is just the same, hower.  The CD reissue is OK, but the strings are much more strident and harsh-sounding, and the sonics seem overall to lack some bass end. I find this true of most of the CD reissues compared to the original vinyls. One should remember that the CD reissue also contains a fine performance of Bloch’s Schelomo, which of course is missing from the vinyl versions.

The Franck Symphony has not been voted the best recording of that work but it is very serviceable, and in superb sonics. “Ballet for Band” has three suites of ballet music, from Rossini”s La Boutique Fantasque, from Gounod’s opera Faust, and Sir Arthur Sullivan’ Pineapple Poll.  Frederick Fennell developed his Eastman Wind Ensemble into a top-flight group and made a whole series of successful recordings for Mercury. He pointed out that the beautiful transcriptions they usually played were now part of the heritage of all wind groups. Not being a fan of either Wagner or most Viennese music I didn’t bother to check out the other vinyls, but this surely appears to be a wonderful package for anyone with a quality turntable system.

—John Sunier

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